Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Guest-Authored Post by Di DeCaire

Identifying Dormant Daylilies in the North

by 

Di DeCaire

(Copyright April 15, 2014)

*For this post, I am featuring a guest author, Di DeCaire, who has written a great article about a northern hybridizer's experiential view of foliage types. This article is an expanded version of a great post Di made to the Robin. I think it is very important to consider the experiences of actual gardeners. While each and every gardener may have slightly different experiences, even in very similar conditions and with very similar plants, many points of reference will be the same. One thing that stood out to me was how much Di's article mirrored the anecdotes I hear from many northern gardeners I have spoken with or corresponded with over the last few years. In fact, her experiences closely mirror my own experiences with the various foliage types, though some of her winter conditions vary from mine. For instance, she may have more snow cover in any given year and even though we are in what is technically the same climate zone, she is considerably further north, being in New York, while I am in Kentucky. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I have and I hope you will take it in the light that it is presented - an experiential account of a northern gardener's personal views about foliage types.*

Di's caption for this photo - "The Beauty of Dormant Seedlings".
The above picture is from Di's garden in mid-spring. However, most of the photos in this article were taken on the same day (April 14, 2014) in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York, to demonstrate the many variations of emergence that occur at the same exact time.

Northerners become positively radiant when they talk about dormant daylilies. If you live in the south you might wonder why. What’s all the excitement about?

Many dormants are green and pristine with no ratty or browned foliage upon emergence. Besides being visually pleasing, their clean appearance engenders a sense of confidence in the way dormancy works. Dormant foliage is often an attractive deep green through this first phase of growth. Some dormant daylilies show bluish green foliage, and these are the most prized of all.

A dormant with blue-green foliage, April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

The phases that a dormant daylily goes through are emergence, foliage growth, scaping, blooming, pod set and dormancy. There is a shutdown in active growth when a daylily goes dormant, ensuring that the fibrous roots are able to economize their sugar supply until spring. No new growth will develop during the winter. This good timing helps them bloom to their fullest potential in northern climates.

Rising temperatures activate a growth hormone called gibberellin in early spring. Rapid cell division occurs in the meristem and is triggered by gibberellin. It’s helpful to understand what a meristem is and its role in relation to dormancy. The meristem of a daylily is a lateral section of cell tissue located just above the crown. It is responsible for the origination of all cell tissue, both above and below ground. A damaged meristem means a damaged plant. A dead meristem means a dead plant.

In autumn when all the foliage dies back to the ground, new buds for the next year’s growth called resting buds develop from the terminal meristem. They remain underground and usually cannot be seen. These resting buds are exceptionally tough and hardy. A chemical similar to anti-freeze helps defend them from frost damage so when the new fans start growing in spring they often have better resistance to late frost damage than more tender evergreens.

Snow is a superior insulator for daylilies in the north. The earth’s heat radiates upward and bounces back down from the snow cover rather than escaping into the atmosphere. Thus areas with heavy snow cover can see evergreen cultivars that survive better and perform better than they may do further south where there is cold weather, but little or no snow cover.

Proper planting of a daylily is crucial because if the crown is situated too low under the surface of the soil the meristem may suffocate, but if planted too high it may be exposed to frost damage over the winter months and into early spring as well, when late frosts occur. I try to plant the top of the crown about three quarters inch deep.

To correctly identify an emerging dormant daylily look for clean fans with no browned or straw colored tips on the new growth, though if there have been late frosts after growth has begun, even some dormants may show some browning on the leaf tips. With dormants the past year's foliage will have completely died off the previous fall and by springtime is lying on the ground in a very wizened state. It’s fun and easy to count the number of growing points at this stage.

The growing points of a dormant diploid emerging in spring,  April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

Some dormants are referred to as hard dormants because they shut down early and completely. Shortening day length in the fall may trigger hard dormancy but this theory is unproven. Other dormants appear to need a succession of freezing temperatures for growth to cease.

A hard dormant emerging in spring, April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

The concern about evergreen daylilies in northern climates has to do with their perpetual growth. They are not programmed by nature to stop growing during the winter months like dormants. When evergreens manage to resume growth during winter thaws, the existing foliage as well as any new growth freezes when temperatures drop again. This winter growth is a waste of the plant’s energy reserves, affecting its overall vitality. Flowering potential is often diminished.

The photos of emerging daylilies included in this article were all taken on the same day (April 14, 2014) in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York, to demonstrate the many variations of emergence that occur at the same exact time. These daylilies were mulched and partially groomed just days before.

In my region evergreens are identified in the spring by their browned foliage and possibly mushy or curled over fans. They often appear disheveled. The fall and winter growth freezing and the next round of growth getting trapped in the dried up brown parts cause this. 

This picture shows an evergreen cultivar with brown, mushy, curled-over foliage on April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

When the browned debris is pulled off green leaves may spring forth, unfolding like an accordion. If another frost occurs this new growth is subject to damage once again, whereas some dormants, though not all show some level of resistance to spring frost damage.

An evergreen showing scrunched up, accordion-like foliage on April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York. This accordion-like foliage may be caused by evergreens attempting to grow during winter warm spells while trapped under the browned, dead foliage.

When evergreen fans freeze and brown all the way down to the ground it is cause for concern. One has to hope that the meristem has not been damaged. It can be surprising to revisit a dead looking clump and see full size, healthy fans arising a couple weeks later but it often happens. Conversely, there may be a few empty spots in the garden where evergreens with the same appearance were not so lucky.

An evergreen clump showing missing fans where the meristem of those fans has died during the winter. Such tender plants will often show suppressed performance and poor, or even no, flowering after such fan loss. This clump was photographed on April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

It’s almost worse for us northerners when only a portion of the plant dies off because it is generally just a matter of time before more trouble occurs, leaving us in a state of uncertainty. Rescue fans may emerge from the meristem in an awkward assemblage as a way of helping the plant survive. These fans are often too small and narrow to give rise to a productive scape.

An evergreen showing heavily browned foliage but no apparent missing fans, from April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

Evergreen clumps should be checked for symmetry. An empty spot is a sign that some portion of the plant may be dead. There are evergreens that are quite hardy. These usually have some brown foliage in the spring but display good symmetry. It’s possible that some dormant genes are mixed in and they may not be 100 % evergreen.

This is an example of an evergreen showing little damage and in relatively good shape, even after the hard winter of 2013/2014. It is to be pointed out that there are hardy evergreens. While some evergreens are tender, there are many that are hardy to very hardy in cold climates. They may not be as attractive in the spring as hard dormants, in northern gardens, but they live, do not decrease and perform at or near the normal performance seen in southern gardens. This photograph is from April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

Crossing dormant and evergreen daylilies has proven successful for me in some cases. These seedlings possess the best qualities of both worlds, the coveted southern flower traits blended with the desirable hardy foliage habit. These crosses often result in what are determined to be semi-evergreens.

A typical semi-evergreen, showing intermediate traits to both true evergreen foliage and true dormant foliage. Photographed on April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

To identify semi evergreens in the north look for clumps with foliage that have some degree of brown at the tips, not as far down as evergreens, and no mushy spots. There are a number of variations resulting from the perpetual blending of dormants and evergreens by hybridizers worldwide.

This picture shows a semi-evergreen that is closer to true evergreen foliage. The photograph is from April 14, 2014 in Kathy Kosel’s garden, located in Upstate New York.

Daylilies that are nearly dormant are sometimes classified as semi-evergreen because they are not completely green at the tips. The longer outer leaves surrounding the clean emerging growth in the center have some degree of browning. These types often possess the same deep green or blue tinged foliage as is seen in some dormants and are normally quite hardy. 

Some semi-evergreens are closer to evergreen. The leaves are of fairly equal height, though the tips are usually somewhat browned. These variations can have quite minor differences and this makes identification tricky. Seedlings that are very close to dormant with a negligible amount of brown on the outer leaves can be hard to classify. Semi evergreens that look almost like hardy evergreens are also tough to classify.

For the more difficult to assess semi-evergreens in my hybridizing beds I try to make note of them as being near dormant, near evergreen habit or falling in the middle. The seedlings are labeled when they emerge in April (it’s a small program so I can afford to fuss). This assessment is not totally accurate at this early stage but helps when hybridizing. I paint white labels purple or green. Purple is for dormant, green is for evergreen and the semi evergreens are left unlabeled.

To compare the often-worrisome experience of brooding over the more tender evergreens to feeling a Zen-like absence of worry about dormant daylilies while watching them emerge results in one outcome for northerners - the dormant daylilies win our affection and we often want to collect them and hybridize to produce more of them.
A photo showing the three foliage types. The bottom plant is a dormant, while the center plant is a semi-evergreen and the upper plant is an evergreen. Photo from Di's garden in mid-spring. You can clearly see the difference in the dormant and evergreen foliage, while the semi-evergreen is intermediate to the two, suggesting that so-called 'semi-evergreens' may be the result of both evergreen and dormant genes combined within one plant. The variations we see in the 'semi-evergreens' may well be due to the various levels of genes of either type and their modifiers.

*I wanted to say a few words here at the end of the article. I want to stress that this article is the actual, hands-on experience of a northern gardener. It is not presented as a scientific treatise, but as an account of the experiences of foliage habit that many northern daylily growers share. Now with that said, I want to stress that I do not for one minute believe there is anything wrong with southern hybridizers and growers focusing on evergreen cultivars. What else would they focus on? Many dormant cultivars do poorly or will not even live in the south. Conversely, I do not think that northern breeders and growers should feel bad for sharing their experiences of the evergreen and semi-evergreen cultivars that do poorly in their winters. These are simply matters of reality. I know that reality, when discussed, may impact the bottom line of some growers, but it is still reality.

Now with that said, how can we find middle ground? While I think that any grower should focus on what is best for their area, one way that both northern and southern growers can work together to benefit each other (and themselves and their customers) is to try out each other's cultivars and honestly evaluate their experiences. In that way, northern-hardy evergreen cultivars can be documented and southern-hardy dormants can be documented. By then sharing that information back and forth, and making it available to fellow hybridizers, beginners and customers alike, everyone can benefit. 

While I don't expect southern growers to focus on breeding northern hardy dormants, any more than I expect northern growers to focus on southern-bred evergreens, when examples of southern-hardy dormants and northern-hardy evergreens are found and documented, those cultivars can be incorporated into the opposite programs to bring in traits that can results in plants that can flourish in both climactic regions. That is the best of both worlds and can bring benefit to each group, rather than the sometimes acrimonious finger-pointing we sometimes see around the issue of foliage habit.

So let's focus on the wonderful and diverse daylilies that we all love. There are many daylily hybridizers, more than enough that we can each do whatever we want, breed however we want and focus on different niches, and this all benefits the daylily. It is the diversity of our plant that has brought so many people to it, both to grow and to hybridize, and that is a good thing.*

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Advice For The Beginning Breeder

A Little Advice For The Beginning Breeder



**I want to start this post with a disclaimer. What I have to say in this post are my opinions based upon my own experiences. If these thoughts don't apply to you or you have other opinions then please ignore what I have to say. However, if you feel there is something in what I have to say that you can apply, please feel free to do so.**

In my many years of breeding plants and animals, I have gained some insight into the process of beginning a breeding program. I want to share some of these observations with you, the reader, so that you may avoid some of the pitfalls and old-wives-tales that are so common in many hobby realms.

One of the first observations I would like to make is about obtaining breeding stock. The standard story is invariably that you must buy the most expensive and advanced cultivars (plants)/strains/lines (animals) you can afford. In plants the implication is that you must get the latest and greatest introductions and in animals you should buy individuals of the highest placing show lines, if you even want to bother with breeding. However, I have two objections with this. The first is that many beginners may not have the experience to sink a large amount of money into the 'finest' stock and may not really be capable of giving these (often touchy or delicate) examples the care they may need. Conversely, the second point is that beginners may gain much more valuable experience by not working with "the best" (as if the best show lines or the 'latest and greatest' introductions actually even are "the best" either in terms of hardiness and survivability or genetic potential). I think the whole notion of 'buying the best' is sometimes more about the sellers purse than the buyers needs, in some instances.


A beginner to breeding any plant or animal is in need of experience. Once some experience is gained, then he or she will have a much better idea about what they want to do and actually can do. So my advice to the beginner is to buy older and affordable cultivars and gain some experience, or in animals buy the second tier stock usually called "breeding quality" and gain some experience. In poultry, an excellent source of stock to gain experience with are those obtained from the commercial hatcheries. Unfortunately, breeders of other animals don't really have this luxury. Plant breeders, though, are in the absolute best situation when it comes to purchasing stock. Any older cultivar that is still in commerce can generally be obtained fairly easily and often fairly inexpensively, and there are thousands to choose from in all forms, styles and both ploidy levels.



Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that an older cultivar is useless. No matter how many offspring were or were not produced from a given cultivar in the past, those breeders didn't have the same gene pool to choose from to combine with those cultivars that we have today. Gain some experience with older, less expensive cultivars that have traits you like and then in time you can bring in more expensive, newer cultivars as you gain experience and combine over the best of those older cultivars to learn about breeding, the making of bridge plants and the retrieving of desired traits in later generations.

Don't assume that because a cultivar is new or expensive that it is superior. Some may truly be superior plants, but others are merely fancier flowers. Like everyone else, I use the occasional fancy flower on a lesser plant in a breeding project, but I only combine them onto the hardiest and most vigorous plants, generally older things that I have a lot of experience with and can trust to reproduce those characteristics, even when crossed to weaker cultivars or seedlings. However, when you are new to breeding any type of plant or animal, you might not be able to recognize the truly hardy and vigorous nor the weak but fancy. The inexperienced eye can be deceived by flashy and extreme phenotype traits. So can more experienced breeders, sometimes, as well.

It is important to remember that delicate and hard to maintain does not equal quality. This is an old-wives-tale that seems to be far too common in all breeding groups. Quality starts with performance and may be compounded by phenotype extremes. However, an extreme or beautiful phenotype in and of itself does not imply quality. These things simply imply an accumulation of genes, usually major and minor, for the trait in question. That is nice, but does not imply a well rounded cultivar or strain. When you are starting out, it can be hard to recognize the more subtle performance traits through the glitz of the accumulated phenotype extremes.



In daylilies, it is important to remember that not all cultivars flourish in all environments. Some southern cultivars do not do well in cold climates. Some hard dormants don't survive in the south. This is just reality. However, most daylilies will do fairly well in most conditions. We haven't managed to turn them all into hothouse delicacies just yet. With that said, the beginner is best advised to buy from a climate similar to their own and even then, buy those that are flourishing in a similar climate. Just because something can survive in a given climate does not mean that it will also thrive. What you want to gain experience with at first are plants that thrive, because you want to reproduce plants that also thrive. 

There will be plenty of time to add "breeder plants" that may not thrive but are still useful in crossing over plants more suited to your environment in order to bring in advanced genes of one kind or another. Once you have some experience, you will also have a better chance of using such plants well. Starting with such plants can be discouraging, but even worse, you might think that such plants are the 'norm' and never gain discernment of what a great plant really is.

Beginners with any type of breeding project are rarely going to jump in and produce an enduring classic in their first batch of seeds, so don't feel pressured to buy very expensive or delicate stock from the get-go. Beginners are often poorly equipped to care for such stock and don't have a point of reference so may not recognize the problem traits in such lines and may actually compound those problems without realizing it. With experience you can learn to recognize the problems and work to eliminate them from such lines while working to combine the desired phenotype traits with desirable performance qualities.

It is so important to not get in a rush. There is no finish line in breeding. If you get started breeding anything and stick with it, you will always be breeding, selecting, working to improve both phenotype traits and performance traits. That's what breeding is. It doesn't end. There is no point at which anything is 'perfect'. There will always be room for improvement. Take your time in getting started and learn what good traits, on both phenotype and performance, really are. Don't let people convince you that poor performance traits are ok because a line or cultivar is 'so advanced' or 'so whatever'. You might use a weak individual, seedling or cultivar at times, but you should be working toward improving the line by eliminating the bad traits while retaining the desirable traits. The bad traits are not ok and should not be overlooked just because of x,y or z phenotype traits. Don't ever believe they are acceptable, even when you are using such an individual or paid a lot of money for it.



By starting with tried and true stock, stock that has proven to have many good traits over many years and in many locations over the country, you will learn what good traits are and then can recognize them. Once you know what real performance traits look like in your garden, it will be very hard for someone else to pull the wool over your eyes and convince you that something pretty but weak is 'superior'. The point of gaining experience is to have a point of reference for future endeavors. 


Remember that everyone will have opinions. Almost any system can bring success if the breeder follows through in what they are doing, but 'success' can mean different things. For some success means they made a lot of money. For others, success means that they have taken a phenotype and made it more extreme, more concentrated. For some success is the production of well-rounded strains or cultivars that are consistent in good traits and have both performance and phenotype extremes combined into one package.



Beware of the notion of not 'reinventing the wheel'. This is something I have heard a lot in the poultry world for many years. The animal world is somewhat different from the plant world in that the animals tend to come in set 'breeds', so the admonition to not reinvent the wheel for animal breeds usually has to do with not trying to make new breeds or new varieties of existing breeds, but in plant breeding, homozygous strains that reproduce themselves in clone-like fashion are the exception, not the rule. So I was a bit surprised to occasionally find this same admonition in the plant world. Doesn't every breeder reinvent the wheel in some way or another? Isn't that the whole point? If we aren't reinventing the wheel, what on earth are we doing? Just churning out more of the same, maybe with a little bit more of this or that trait? There does seem to be a lot of that in almost all breeding circles. 

Sometimes, though, the wheel needs to be reinvented. When there are problems in a line, sometimes it has to be outcrossed and remade from the ground up. So many people seem to fear doing this and so in too many domesticated organisms, we see a steady decline over generations through inbreeding and narrowing of the gene pool. In many animals lines, the fear of outcrossing produces inbreeding problems and creates lines that are not viable, often with disease susceptibility problems set in the line, as well as infertility. This is less of a problem in plants, but we do see some of it. One area where the wheel might desperately need to be reinvented in the daylily world is in regards to the many types that show high rust susceptibility.

Another worrisome trend I have noticed in the daylily world is the tendency to blame failure with a given cultivar on the person growing the plant. This is especially prevalent when dealing with evergreen and semi-evergreen cultivars that fail in the north. Instead of just saying that maybe that cultivar is not a good choice for all cold climate areas, some will blame the failure on 'cultural conditions'. We accept that many hard dormant cultivars won't survive in the south, so why then is it sometimes not also accepted that some evergreen cultivars won't survive in the north?

In regards to the notion that certain cultivars won't survive without specific cultural practices, my question is, why then would I want that cultivar when the six hundred cultivars I have that surrounded it in the garden all survived without those 'cultural practices'? A beginner may not think to ask that question, but having had many years of experience with growing and raising plants and animals, I have learned that delicacy doesn't equate rarity, value or specialness. 



Now, I might use a delicate or demanding specimen (for as long as it survives or for one or two seasons) in a breeding program, but I am not going to think that delicacy is ok. I recognize that such delicacy is a serious flaw and I will work to eliminate that problem in future generations while seeking to keep the desirable trait(s) from such a cultivar within the line. However, you have to be able to recognize the flaws in order to not perpetuate them. To do that, you have to be able to see those flaws and even understand that they are flaws to begin with. Only by gaining experience with excellent performing individuals or strains will you have that point of reference to recognize the flaws when you see them.

While it may not be a popular thing to say, there are plenty of five and ten dollar daylilies that are wonderful, beautiful garden plants and are also excellent breeders, especially when crossed to excellent modern cultivars. Age is not a determiner of breeding value. If you need any further evidence, just look at some of the work of Brian Mahieu or Gil Stelter, both of who have gone back to the species in their programs with wonderful results. Talk about reinventing the wheel. Can you reinvent it any more thoroughly than going back to the beginning?



Another fine example of someone who 'reinvented the wheel' is Richard Norris, who created his line of flat flowered cultivars by using the old, flat flowered cultivar Lights of Detroit. Lights of Detroit had been around for years when Richard started working with it to produce a flat flowered line, yet almost nothing of any interest had been done with it. Richard had both the vision and the persistence to just do it. He had an idea and a vision and raised large numbers over several generations to produce what he was looking for. There must be so many currently obscure traits in the daylily gene pool that could be, but currently aren't being, exploited to produce amazing and breathtaking new phenotypes. We will never know if someone doesn't try.

It is important for beginners to study what has gone before them. Look at what other did. Don't just play follow the leader or jump on every latest trend. Try new things, but also, don't be distressed if your ideas fail. Sometimes our failures are our greatest teachers. I am deeply grateful for my failures, sometimes more grateful for the failures than the successes. Learn to value your failures and your successes, as both are your teachers. Listen to the experiences of others, but follow your own ideas, dreams, intuitions and learn what is possible and what is not possible while mapping your own path. If you do, you might just give the world something extraordinary. Above all, be patient, take your time to learn and don't spend more than you can afford. There is always time for that when you know what you are doing and are sure of what you want to do.